Education

Former Republican governor leading Wisconsin system rebuffs GOP lawmakers’ effort to control COVID rules

Dive Brief:

  • The University of Wisconsin System will not comply with Republican lawmakers’ demand that system officials seek legislative approval before instituting coronavirus mitigation measures, its interim president, Tommy Thompson, said Monday. 

  • Earlier this month, the legislature’s Joint Committee for Review of Administrative Rules voted that system representatives must get the panel’s permission to implement safety measures such as mandatory mask wearing or vaccine and testing protocols. The vote was on party lines, with all six Republicans on the committee in favor and its four Democrats against the policy.

  • A prominent Republican legislator has vowed to help bring legal action against the system if it does not follow the committee’s directive. 

Dive Insight:

Thompson’s refusal is an example of struggles emerging between college leaders and state authorities aiming to intervene on or block health policies. 

In an unusual move, Thompson is challenging members of his own political party. He is a Republican and former governor of the state, with many ties to the state capitol. Thompson was also U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services under the George W. Bush administration. It suggests that similar battles elsewhere may not be cleanly defined on political lines, particularly in red states where policymakers have already restricted colleges’ efforts to curtail the virus’s spread. 

The American College Health Association, along with dozens of other higher education groups, have assailed lawmakers’ attempts across the U.S. to regulate prevention measures “at a time of tremendous unpredictability.” The highly contagious delta strain is fueling an upswing of the virus in the country, with average new cases recently exceeding 150,000 a day. Colleges have adjusted their reopening plans for the fall.

Thompson issued a lengthy statement Tuesday blasting lawmakers’ moves to seize authority from the system. He argued the system universities’ masking and testing requirements last academic year enabled them to control campus coronavirus rates, which fell significantly below the state’s.

“The UW System is not required to seek political approval for every internal management decision, nor should it,” Thompson wrote.

He told local media outlets he was willing to fight lawmakers’ directive in court. 

And such a legal skirmish may be coming. 

State Sen. Steve Nass, a Republican and the joint committee co-chair, released a statement Tuesday in response saying that if the system did not obey the rule by Sept. 2, he would request that legislative leaders pursue legal action against it. 

In the statement, Nass railed against “Ivory Tower administrators” and accused the university chancellors of trying to dictate that every student, employee and visitor be vaccinated against the coronavirus “or be banished” from campuses.

“It is sad that Interim President Tommy Thompson has once again shown his belief in big government control over the rights of individuals to make their own health related decisions,” Nass said. “This fight is not solely about mask mandates or testing requirements.

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